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The Eitingons: A Twentieth Century Story

A family history that explores the KGB, the fur trade, Freud and the assassination of Trotsky
Leonid Eitingon was a KGB assassin who dedicated his life to the Soviet regime. He was in China in the early 1920s, in Turkey in the late 1920s, in Spain during the Civil War, and, crucially, in Mexico, helping to organize the assassination of Trotsky. “As long as I live,” Stalin said, “not a hair of his head shall be touched.” It did not work out like that.

Max Eitingon was a psychoanalyst, a colleague, friend and protégé of Freud’s. He was rich, secretive and—through his friendship with a famous Russian singer— implicated in the abduction of a white Russian general in Paris in 1937. Motty Eitingon was a New York fur dealer whose connections with the Soviet Union made him the largest trader in the world. Imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, questioned by the FBI. Was Motty everybody’s friend or everybody’s enemy?

Mary-Kay Wilmers, best known as the editor of the London Review of Books, began looking into aspects of her remarkable family twenty years ago. The result is a book of astonishing scope and thrilling originality that throws light into some of the darkest corners of the last century. At the center of the story stands the author herself—ironic, precise, searching, and stylish—wondering not only about where she is from, but about what she’s entitled to know.

Reviews

  • “Unlike the hordes of amateur historians who have mobbed the world’s libraries over the past decade on the theory that reconstructing lineage equates to personal discovery, Wilmers is up to something that commands general attention.”
  • “Wilmers’ adventures in digging through [the Eitingons’] lost world makes Mary-Kay one of the book’s most intriguing characters.”
  • “Like characters in some Russian Jewish Stalinist Freudian capitalist 20th-century fairy tale, the Eitingons are larger than life, their fates bitter and all too human.”
  • “A superbly written book, The Eitingons is much more than a family history, for the author has a deep knowledge of the cultural and political context, whether of twentieth-century America or the Soviet Union, in which they lived. It stands as an intimate portrait of a world that seems far removed from our own.”
  • The Eitingons is a riveting history of the twentieth century. It deals with war, displacement, murder, espionage, the Jewish diaspora and psychoanalysis. It explains Trotsky’s assassination, the growth of Freud’s teachings, the importance of the fur trade, the uses of money and the lure of the past. There is a lightness and a truthfulness in the narrative that makes you turn every page with pure fascination.”
  • “Wilmers pieces together what she can of the shadowy life of Leonid Eitingon, a high-level KGB killer … and looks for clues that her grandfather’s cousin Max, a protégé of Freud in Berlin, and Motty, a New York fur trader, were also working for Stalin. What emerges is a fascinating story of family secrets and silences.”
  • “Well researched, bold, and revealing, Wilmers's book transforms a series of dark family secrets into an illuminating experience for anybody brave enough to delve into the enigma of family history.”
  • “Compelling… [Wilmers] has produced a deeply-researched family chronicle, which bears only a trace resemblance to the memoirs that dominate the book industry.”

Blog

  • Reconceptualizing Family History

    "Frustrated by the fact that most texts on women treated 'the man's world' as the given and then simply asked where and how women fitted in," Stephanie Coontz writes, "I decided to undertake a survey of American gender roles: that was the starting point of the present book" — The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900, published by Verso in 1988.


    Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863-65. via Wikimedia Commons.

    As the focus of her research shifted from "woman's private sphere" to the family as a larger arena in which the public and private intersect, Coontz became more attentive to the diversity of household arrangements across time and space. "Stimulated by the burgeoning research into family history," she writes, "I began to look at the family as a culture's way of coordinating personal reproduction with social reproduction — as the socially sanctioned place where male and female reproductive activities condition and are conditioned by the other activities into which human beings enter as they perpetuate a particular kind of society, or try to construct a new one." 

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  • Reconceptualizing Family History (Part II)

    Continued from part I.


    Detail from Francis William Edmonds' The New Bonnet (1858).

    The Limits of Structural and Demographic Analysis

    Although it is important to compare demographic trends and household structures and seek their economic correlates, such procedures yield only limited information about the history of families. Olga Linares points out: “Qualitative changes in the meaning of interpersonal obligations may be as important in distinguishing among household types as more easily measured changes in size and form.” Indeed, as Barrington Moore Jr has commented, tabulating structural differences “necessarily involves ignoring all differences except the one being measured.” Changes in social relations and patterns are not “reducible to any quantitative differences; they are incommensurable. Yet it is precisely such differences that matter most to human beings.”47

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  • Stranger than fiction, indeed: Ha'aretz reports another twist in the Eitingons family story

    In an extraordinary and unexpected twist to the Eitingon family saga, Israeli historians Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez recently unearthed the heretofore-unknown relationship between Max Eitingon and his "secret" son-in-law, leading Soviet nuclear physicist Yuli Khariton, who was known to some as a Soviet J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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